Spencer Pumpelly, vegan racing driver
World fastest vegan?
Spencer is established as one of the most successful drivers in the North American race car driving. He has been competing at the top level for over fifteen years, scoring wins in the American Le Mans series and the Grand-Am Rolex Series. He has two GT class wins at the prestigious Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona.
Spencer drove with several teams over 2000-2005 and made a breakthrough in 2006 when he took unexpected victory at the 2006 Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. Later that season he drove for the first time with Daytona Prototypes and ended the season joining TRG (The Racers Group), winning the season's last race and helping teammates Andy Lally (who is vegan) and Mac Bunting in taking the 2006 Rolex GT drivers' championship.
Over the next years he drove with TRG to take another win in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona in 2011, a podium finish in the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring among over a dozen victories. He went on to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans on four occasions.
"I have been able to make a full time living racing sportscars for the past 20 years" Spencer told us in 2016. "Some years have been better than others but the fact that teams still want me around is the biggest compliment I can get. I have made a great deal of lifelong friends in the paddock and have gotten to do some really incredible things both on and off the track. Being able to race with and against great people is my greatest racing achievement."
He also plays ice hockey, trains in Brazilian Jui Jitsu and runs 10 km races.
Vegan to stay fit and fast
Spencer stopped eating meat in 2003 and went vegan in 2010.
"I made the switch to vegetarian for health reasons, and was always interested in trying vegan but figured that with all my travel it would be impossible. One race weekend I decided to give it a try and sure enough I made it through the event. I kept at it and it turns out it's a lot easier than I imagined."
Spencer is motivated to preserve his health for a sports which is a lot more demanding than many people realise. This is something he was able to explain to us in detail.
"This is always difficult to explain to someone who has never raced before. From the outside it looks really easy, almost as if you are just sitting there while the car does all the work. The reality is quite the opposite. Driving at the ragged edge is exhausting and we have to do it for up to three hours straight in some instances. The G forces and bumps on the track make it taxing to keep your head and body in the correct position no matter how tight you get your seat belts.
"The control inputs have to be lightning quick and the brake pedal requires about 250lbs of pressure each time you slow, typically 8-10 times in a 90 second lap. The heat can get intense on hot summer days and we have seen cockpit temperatures over 120 deg. But the toughest part to explain is just how much physical exertion comes as a result of all the mental processing. Your focus while in the car is intense. Drivers have to make hundreds of decisions every lap and each one can have huge consequences. That type of focus and stress takes a definite physical toll. In a race if you are exhausted you can't process as quickly and you will accept a lower standard of performance. Staying fit means staying fast."
The demands of the sport mean that any advantage is invaluable.
"We really only have the 3 days of a race weekend to figure out the best way to drive each track and how to tune the car. However, we can show up to the races in the best physical shape possible and that's what I try to do. My vegan diet is a huge help in my running as well as the other training I mix in."
What does he eat?
"Pizza! We have several great pizza places nearby my home in Atlanta. Several offer Daiya and other have house made cashew cheese. On the road I love burrito joints, Indian food, and if possible, I love trying local veg restaurants."
With another vegan on the race circuit, in Andy Lally, we wondered whether this was good or bad news for Spencer.
"He's my direct competition and he's a strong driver" says Spencer. "I liked it better when I was the only one who knew the secret. But he is a good friend and another example of a successful vegan athlete so yeah, I guess I do like having him around."
Fast driving to fast food?
Established as a leading driver, Spencer is keen to see the career he loves continue long into the future - then he has other plans.
"I love what I'm doing now and hope to continue as long as I'm able to stay competitive. I'm 41 now and I see other successful drivers doing well into their 50's. Afterwards I'd like to move away from racing and I have always been interested in opening a vegan bar in the Atlanta area. Some place with beer, football or racing on TV, chicken wings and chili dawgs (vegan versions of course)."
- "I am very passionate about both animals and health, and I want to do more to promote both...I knew vegan was the right thing to do, but I always figured it would be too hard with all the traveling I do. I decided to give it a try last summer when several things, including my favorite local pizza joint starting to carry Daiya non-dairy cheese, seemed to point me in that direction. After a few weeks of adjusting, I now find it quite easy no matter where I go."
More about Spencer elsewhere online: